Book Summary: “When Information Came of Age: … Age or Reason 1700-1850” by Daniel Headrick

When Information Came of Age

Title: When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850
Author: Daniel R. Headrick
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Headrick explores the European Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th Century.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The modern Information Age shares many characteristics with the Enlightenment.
  • The key factor is not the amount of information, but how the information is organized, stored and retrieved for use by a large group of people.
  • The Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe did not lead to any great philosophical breakthroughs.
  • The Enlightenment was more about documenting, categorizing presenting and storing the great discoveries from:
    • Exploration and settlement of New World, Asia and the oceans
    • Invention of new scientific instruments like the telescope, microscope, mathematics, clocks, sailing ships, etc.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

The major contributions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to science revolved less around conceptual breakthroughs (Newton came before our period, and Darwin after) than in producing a flood of new observations and developing systems for handling them. Large quantities of information could be processed and understood only if there were means of classifying and organizing them.

Organizing and Classifying Information

  • Linnaeus biological taxonomy
  • Lavoisier’s nomenclature of elements and compounds
  • Metric system
  • Mathematical notation
  • Musical notation

Transforming Information (Quantification)

  • Accounting and Bookkeeping
  • Statistical analysis
  • Government statistical bureaus
  • Demographic surveys
  • Census

Displaying Information

  • Surveys and triangulation
  • Maps (more geographical coverage, finer scale, more accurate, better visualization, contour lines)
  • Thematic maps
  • Astronomical tables
  • Nautical maps and hydrographic surveys
  • Land registrars
  • Stratigraphic sections (geological maps)
  • Graphs and Cartesian coordinates
  • Timelines
  • Tables
  • Technical and Scientific Illustrations
  • Engineering drawings
  • Engraving and Lithography

Information Storage and Retrieval Systems

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Law codes
  • Calendars
  • Almanacs
  • Stagecoach schedules
  • Cookbooks
  • Technical manuals
  • Museums
  • Libraries
  • Herbaria
  • Botanical gardens
  • Zoos
  • Filing methods

Communicating Information

  • Postal service
  • Semaphore
  • Naval flag-signaling
  • Newspapers

The amount of knowledge that a human mind can hold is truly extraordinary, but it is not infinite, nor is the mind reliable. Hence the need for information. As society becomes more complex and its interactions speed up, access to information becomes increasingly important. Education was once focused on learning, that is, on acquiring knowledge; it now stresses research skills. What matters is not knowing the answer but knowing where to look it up. And that means the information is (one hopes) out there, readily accessible.

Instead, let us focus on a more manageable concept, the study of information systems. By systems, I mean the methods and techniques by which people organize and manage information, rather than the content of the information itself. Information systems were created to supplement the mental functions of thought, memory, and speech. They are, if you will, the technologies of knowledge.

What is astonishing about the current information age is not only the amount of information available but also the proliferation of systems needed to handle it and of organizations that employ these systems.

To classify, process, store, retrieve, or transmit information quickly or with less cost and effort, it must be compressed, codified, and organized in a systematic fashion. In the process, narrative, descriptive, or decorative information is turned into data. Data can be expressed in words (as in a dictionary), in numbers (as in grade point averages and baseball statistics), in an alphanumeric code (as in telephone numbers), in symbols (as in mathematical or musical notation), in graphics (as in maps, statistical graphs, or scientific illustrations), and in many other ways. Data can be stored in and transmitted through many different media: by speech and memory, albeit not very well; more efficiently, by writing and printing; and most efficiently of all, in the newer electrical and electronic media.

The Information Age has no beginning, for it is as old as humankind. Nonetheless, in the course of history there have been periods of sharp acceleration (revolutions, if your prefer) in the amount of information that people had access to and in the creation of information systems to deal with it. The appearance of writing, the alphabet, double-entry bookkeeping, the printing press, the telegraph, the transistor, and the computer—each has contributed mightily to the acceleration of information in their time. In short, there have been many information revolutions.

The rising demand for information was stimulated by the growth of population, production, and trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

The supply of information never “satisfies” the demand. In the first place, even when new information answers one question, it often only whets the appetite for more information. Furthermore, a great deal of information is too valuable to disseminate, and those who possess it make great efforts to keep it to themselves.


The strongest motivation for classifying plants and animals was the growth in the number of known species.

In the life sciences, classification and nomenclature preceded the emergence of an explanatory theory by over a century. In contrast, chemistry developed a new classification system, a new nomenclature, and an explanatory theory almost at the same time.

Science does not just accumulate data and find patterns in nature; it also seeks to explain these patterns. Yet finding patterns requires classifying and naming natural phenomena. Hence classification and nomenclature are the foundations upon which explanations can be built and influence those explanations.

Biology was born of the need to find in nature itself an explanation for the affinities that the Linnaean classification systems had revealed. The urge to classify and name was at the heart of the chemical revolution as well. In chemistry, however, classifying, naming, and explaining happened simultaneously, which is why we call it a revolution.


Statistics, in the sense of numbers representing data, first appeared in the eighteenth century and became a regular feature of the cultural landscape in the early nineteenth century.

There have always been numerate people, for merchants and bureaucrats had been keeping accounts since ancient times. What was new in the Age of Reason and Revolution was the idea that numbers could be used to analyze something other than money, such as population, health and illness, nature, or even divine Providence.

A common cultural phenomenon: the quantifying spirit, or the desire to reveal truths that could not be found in verbal descriptions. In all these cases, statistics were the expression of the need to master large quantities of information, to find patterns in those large quantities, to understand those patterns, and to use that understanding to control the world.

Social statistics had a long, complicated birth because it required the simultaneous development of two phenomena. One was an interest in explaining epidemics, crimes, demographic and economic changes, and other social phenomena in purely human terms, without falling back on supernatural explanations like “fate” or “God’s will.” The other was obtaining data that, by its very nature, could only come from organizations: parish records, tax rolls, administrative enumerations, and the like.

Social statistics had a long, complicated birth because it required the simultaneous development of two phenomena. One was an interest in explaining epidemics, crimes, demographic and economic changes, and other social phenomena in purely human terms, without falling back on supernatural explanations like “fate” or “God’s will.” The other was obtaining data that, by its very nature, could only come from organizations: parish records, tax rolls, administrative enumerations, and the like.

Not until after the Napoleonic Wars did the public demand for statistical information and for its supply by governments finally merge into the “avalanche of printed numbers” under which we are still buried. From that point on, statistics became the mode of discourse of moderates, people who eschewed both reactionary absolutism and violent revolution, but instead advocated progress through reform in matters of health, crimes, or morality.

Displaying Information

As a means of conveying information, pictures have a distinct advantage over both writing and numbers. They come more “naturally”.

Even when a picture is meant to be informative, however, it does not necessarily convey information efficiently and correctly. To achieve a high degree of efficiency and accuracy, the graphical representation of information had to undergo a long process of evolution. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries made great contributions to the forms of visual representation designed to convey information. Though not high points in Western art, the number and diversity of these contributions is remarkable:

illustrations of plants, animals, and parts of the human anatomy; engineering drawings and technical illustrations; maps, hydrographic charts, and geological sections; and statistical graphs.

Improvements in maps can be measured in three ways. First are changes that reflect an increased knowledge of the world. In this respect, no period can compare with the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Governments had long known that knowledge is power and that maps in particular are weapons of war, tools of administration, and incentives to development. Government-sponsored mapmaking spread far beyond France and Britain as most “enlightened” European states undertook great cartographic projects for purposes of taxation, military strategy, road building, or just to be modern.

There was, however, much more and better information to be found in nineteenth-century maps and graphs than ever before, reflecting the greatly increased knowledge of the earth, the oceans, the subsoil, and the distribution of both natural and social phenomena that had accumulated in a century and a half. By the mid–nineteenth century, cartographers, geologists, and statisticians had found means of representing such information in more precise and accurate graphical forms than ever before. They represent a transition from a descriptive or narrative visual language—“elephants for want of towns”—to a scientific system of showing data visually.

Entirely new systems of displaying information visually were developed after 1850: photography, motion pictures, X rays, color printing, television, neon signs, and more.

Astonishing as they were, these media pale in comparison with the impact of computers on visual representations. In the two cases presented in this chapter—maps and graphs—computers have revolutionized the gathering, processing, and display of information.

Storing Information

The educated public admires erudition and intellectual sophistication, but what it buys is access to current information organized for efficient retrieval.

Communicating Information

Humans are gifted, both naturally and culturally, at communicating face-to-face. Long-distance communications, however, require elaborate systems to convey information to its destination in a timely manner. Overcoming distances is but one of the functions of communication systems.

Access to the general public, so characteristic of today’s communications networks, is a recent development.

Ours is not the first information age in history, for humans have always needed and used information. Yet in certain periods the methods used to handle information changed dramatically. We live in such an age, but it is not the first. The appearance of spoken languages must have been a momentous event, although we can only guess at it. Writing is a method we know much more about, as we do about other innovations likethe alphabet, geometry, and Arabic numerals. We can also identify information machines in ancient times (e.g., the sundial and clepsydra) and even more so in the Middle Ages (the mechanical clock and the printing press).

The purpose of this book is to argue that the information revolution in which we live is the result of a cultural change that began roughly three centuries ago, a change as important as the political and industrial revolutions for which the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are so well known.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s